Revisiting a childhood classic
Review By Amy Scribner
I still remember when my elementary school librarian pointed out that the Little House series was shelved in the fiction section. It blew my 10-year-old mind. Did that mean that Laura Ingalls Wilder—whose braids and spunk I spent the better part of my childhood emulating—hadn’t really almost starved during the long winter, or fought with nasty Nellie Oleson, or fallen in love with Almanzo?
The answer is complicated, as Wendy McClure discovers in The Wilder Life, her sweetly obsessive quest to find what she calls Laura World. After the death of her mother, McClure finds herself picking up the series that so captivated her as a child, and that captures the essence of what it means to be a family. “The books were comforting,” McClure writes, “but they started to unravel something in me.”
She and her husband Chris (who earns the title of Most Understanding and Supportive Spouse in History) embark on a journey to visit the places where Laura lived. They hit Pepin, Wisconsin, site of Little House in the Big Woods; Walnut Grove, Minnesota, made famous in the 1970s television series; and De Smet, South Dakota, where the family nearly died one brutal winter. They also make a memorable stop in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo lived in their later years in a custom-built farmhouse. Their only child, Rose Wilder Lane, built her parents a small rock cottage on the same property, then took over the farmhouse for herself. McClure calls the cottage Little House in the Complicated Family Dynamic.
It’s tidbits like that one that make The Wilder Life intensely enjoyable. McClure takes Laura World seriously, and gets just about as close as one can to Laura—yet somehow she can never quite get inside Laura’s head. Although the places are real, the people are long gone. And so it goes with childhood touchstones—fond memories you can never recapture, no matter whether you’re driving past your old elementary school or Laura’s log cabin. In The Wilder Life, McClure perfectly captures that haunting brew of wistfulness and nostalgia.
Turning to Jane for Advice
Review By Catherine Hollis
Equal parts sentimental education and literary guidebook, William Deresiewicz’s enjoyable memoir about coming of age through reading Jane Austen’s novels offers life lessons from which any reader could benefit. Discovering Austen as a callow graduate student, Deresiewicz finds himself surprised and humbled by her intelligence, and ultimately changed forever by her insight into “everything that matters.”
Emma is the tool of his conversion: Reading it for the first time, Deresiewicz finds himself bored and irritated by the endless discussions of card parties and neighborhood matters, identifying with Emma Woodhouse’s disdain for the provincial town of Highbury. But when Emma insults the scatterbrained Miss Bates at a picnic, Deresiewicz has his “a-ha” moment: Emma’s cruelty mirrors his own, and Austen knows it. Therefore, Emma’s lesson in humility must also be his own; both must learn to appreciate the “minute particulars,” those apparently trivial details that make up the fabric of real life.
With Jane Austen as his teacher, Deresiewicz learns from Pride and Prejudice that growing up is a never-ending process; from Mansfield Park that truly listening to other people’s stories is the best way to be helpful to them; and from Persuasion the importance of building a community of friends. Vignettes from Deresiewicz’s life and episodes from Austen’s biography are seamlessly interwoven with discussions of the novels, beautifully illustrating the interdependence of reading, writing and real life. Whether it is the challenge of gaining distance from his overbearing father, the temptations of friendship with wealthy, idle people or the pursuit of for-real adult love, Deresiewicz turns to Jane Austen as a wise and kind, if occasionally tart, teacher/aunt/elder. This is a fresh and appealing take on the coming-of-age memoir, pleasurably demonstrating that books really can change your life.
Deresiewicz is an award-winning literary critic and a former professor of English at Yale University. It is sure proof of his literary talent that A Jane Austen Education is so eminently readable, both substantive and entertaining. I found myself galloping through it, inspired to turn back to Jane Austen myself to see what lessons her novels have for me.
The joy of sharing books
Review By Heather Seggel
Alice Ozma grew up with a single father who was a dedicated elementary school librarian. Even her two middle names, under which she writes, testify to a love of children’s literature. So it wasn’t out of character when the two decided to formalize their nightly reading sessions into an attempt at reading aloud for 100 consecutive nights. When that was handily completed, “The Streak” grew . . . and grew . . . and eventually continued for eight years, until Ozma started college. The Reading Promise is a memoir woven from the stories they shared.
Some of the book’s funniest moments stem from the pair’s commitment to get their reading session in by midnight: Ozma’s father might have to pull her from a late theater rehearsal and recite from Harry Potter by streetlight, or barely whisper when he had laryngitis. It’s both funny and touching when he tries to protect her from a book’s frank discussion of puberty by reducing it down to “all the stuff,” having one character add, “Yes, I already know about that so we don’t need to talk about it.” Generally obedient, Ozma nevertheless sneaks into her father’s room later to read the chapter, laughing at his censorship of a completely age-appropriate and informative passage.
After Ozma leaves for college, her father suffers a setback when his school decides to eliminate its reading program and replace the library’s books with computers. He tries to keep the program in place, since it serves poor children who may struggle to attain basic literacy without it, but is overruled and ends up leaving the school—and finding a new audience as a reader in retirement homes.
The Reading Promise is a sweet tribute to a devoted single parent and a powerful reminder of the bond that shared stories can create.